Into the street beneath the street we step,
denizens of Seattle Underground
for now, as purplish light through sidewalk glass
treaks down upon the tour group that we’ve joined
for kicks, for entertainment, for an hour.
Our guide—voluble, rotund—tells of fire,
a tinderbox laid waste, and city fathers,
patrons of banks and brothels, who rebuilt
the whole place one flight up, the world they knew
ubmerged in shadow, ill-lit corridors
infested with rats and vice, brief assignations
between supply and human frailty,
neither at risk of ever running out.
You don’t look like you’re having too much fun,
though I enjoy this sort of thing: the sweep
of great deeds and decay, the roar of time
down history’s tunnel past the glass and brickwork,
leaving us, and rubble, in its wake.
Toy settlers trapped in dusty dioramas—
check. A few framed photos of the past
from some high point: a teeming Wild West town,
it seems, fists and saloon doors swinging freely
Forward, our tour guide beckons, into chambers
more like catacombs, the street-glow gone,
replaced by blinding bulbs. I touch your hand.
More tales of opium dens—speakeasies, too—
tactfully sanitized for daytime tours.
Rough concrete yields to nailed plywood planks
and more smashed remnants: shattered wooden pipe,
a teller’s cage, wrecked gears the size of bike wheels,
even a round once-scarlet sofa ditched,
bedecked in dust. (“They used it on the set
of some old TV movie filmed down here.”)
Up there’s where we’ll go next, you want to say,
and soon, you hope: you’ve had your fill of news
a century old, façades of storefronts closed
like history itself, a box shut tight
despite the clues it scatters in plain sight.
I’m having fun—an hour’s worth of legend,
facts and guesses mixed to give us myths,
our earthly comedy—but, all alone,
I’d never go. The only point’s to share
it with someone—with you—who passes by
me with the crowd, nervous before the entry
to another junk-strewn, mildewed grotto
that may hold the key to some lost past,
or only dirt, old plumbing. Left alone,
what would this place be like if some swift blackout
cut the lights? Don’t ask. We’re not alone—
you’re with me, I’m with you, Pioneer Square
unseen above, the Tlingit Totem Pole
that arson torched re-carved with tribal blessings
and resentments tall against gray sky
toward which we’ll climb, in time. . . . Finally, the steep
drop of the catwalk’s last stretch, more loose boards—
I gently touch your sleeve to hold you back,
and step ahead, decisive, vigilant
that you emerge unhurt, safe from the fears
that made you hesitate, give in once more,
and forge on by my side. . . . “Let me go first,”
I say, and mean it, as you watch me pass.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation strengthens our efforts to preserve the gifts of our cultural heritage.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 1, on page 62
Copyright © 2022 The New Criterion |